Practical Chess Psychology

Practical Chess Psychology

| 23 | Strategy

On Tuesday, Feb. 19, 2013, I returned to my old stomping ground in San Francisco: The Mechanics’ Institute Chess Club. The first thing my visit to San Francisco did was reaffirm Mark Twain’s old comment, “The coldest winter I ever experienced was a summer in San Francisco.”

Fortunately, I like a bit of chill in the air and to me, SF was and always will be a magical place. For those that aren’t familiar with the Mechanics’ Institute, it might surprise you to know that it’s the oldest chess club in the United States (opened in 1854!), and it has been visited by a who’s who of chess giants: Zukertort, Lasker, Pillsbury, Maroczy, Marshall, Capablanca, Alekhine, Euwe, Reshevsky, Koltanowski, Smyslov, Gligoric, Fischer, Petrosian, Miles, Karpov, and Spassky.

The chess club takes up most of the 4th floor of the Mechanics’ Institute, but membership also entitles you to make use of the rest of the Institute, including one of the finest private libraries in the U.S. This consists of two floors of books on every subject under the sun (chess included). In my 20s, on particularly drab, cold days, it was always a delight to enter the library, grab a few books or the latest newspapers, claim a comfortable leather chair, and just warm up and relax in total luxury.

Nowadays things are better than ever, thanks largely to the efforts of Club Director IM John Donaldson who has led the club to a new golden era. Wonderful photos of chess greats adorn the walls, regular tournaments are held (slow time controls and blitz), Grandmaster-in-residence (and 3 time U.S. Champion) Nick de Firmian gives weekly classes and runs the M.I. outreach program while IM Donaldson offers free lectures when the Tuesday Night Marathon is held (42 weeks a year). The Marathon, which I won several times in the 1980s, is quite possibly the largest weeknight adult tournament in the world. The latest had 90 entries. [For those interested, you can get information about the Mechanics at]

Though I first went to the Mechanics when I was 19 years old, I’ve never had the pleasure of lecturing at that location. Thus it was a real treat for me to finally talk in those hallowed chess grounds. And, for the occasion, I decided that practical chess psychology would prove to be a worthwhile topic for players from 1000 to master. 

This week I will forgo my usual tactics’ article and instead share the lecture I gave at the Mechanics’ Institute Club. I hope you’ll enjoy it (sadly, you won’t be able to see me ranting, raving, digressing into strange but funny chess tales, and waving my fists, which are usually key components of my lectures).


* Laughing at threats.

* Pushing your agenda.

* Punishing what you deem to be insane/wrong/crazy.

* There is no such thing as “I Must” or “He Must.”

We’ll start with something very basic and very simple that everyone has faced at one time or another. 

It is Black to move but White is already planning to go for queenside space by making use of the thematic c4-c5 push. He can prepare it with Be3, b2-b4, and c4-c5 (perhaps tossing in Nf3-e1-d3). All this is zipping through white’s mind when Black reaches out and plays:


You raise your eyes a bit and decide your opponent is an idiot since this move doesn’t seem to do anything at all. Since Black is “treading water,” you continue with your plan.

2.Be3 Qc8 and suddenly you know exactly what he wants to do – …Bxh3 with an attack.

At this point many amateur’s freak out a bit and play moves like 3.Kh2 to stop the sacrifice cold, or 3.Nh2 to surround your King with defenders. But if your plan was b2-b4, then shouldn’t you insist on playing it? Why defend and lose sight of your agenda unless his obvious threat is real? One way to deal with such a threat is to do nothing in your analysis and just give him a free move. 

Thus: 3...Bxh3 4.gxh3 Qxh3 and now 5.Nh2 intending Bf3-g2 (or Bg4) ends the attack and wins the game.

As I said earlier, most amateur’s panic in the face of a threat to their King, and in this case stopping it would actually be PREVENTING YOUR OPPONENT FROM LOSING THE GAME! Why waste a move to stop your opponent from losing? It doesn’t make sense, yet everyone does it.

How do titled players (IM and GM) deal with these kinds of threats? In general, their first reaction to any threat is (if they are English), “Rubbish!” If you are a longshoreman, your language would likely be spicier. But come up with something that you say internally which gets the juices flowing and creates a certain sense of outrage at the opponent’s misguided audacity. In other words, the titled player never believes a threat is real. It is or it isn’t, and he’ll only react if he’s 100% sure that it deserves his respect.

The following example shocked me in that Black, who sported a rating of 1720, did something very few non-masters would ever do: he literally spat on his higher rated opponent’s ideas and threats (I should add that White was playing very well!) and instead insisted on pushing his own agenda. It doesn’t matter if what Black did was correct or not, what does matter is his very rare “I’m coming to get you no matter what you do” mental state.

Hubbard (1998) – Abraham (1720), ICC 2005

1.Nf3 Nc6 2.d4 e5 3.dxe5 Qe7 4.g3 Nxe5 (threatening 5...Nxf3 mate!) 5.Bg2 c6 6.0-0 Nf6 7.b3 g6

Here I would give maximum consideration to 8.Bb2 (forcing black’s hand) or 8.c4 (taking a bite out of the center): 8.Bb2 and now: 

8...d6 9.Nxe5 dxe5 10.Nd2 Bg7 11.Nc4 0-0 12.Ba3 (12.Bxe5 is okay, though 12...Rd8 13.Qc1 Be6 14.Ne3 isn’t as good as our main continuation) 12...c5 13.Qd6 Qxd6 14.Nxd6 e4 15.Rad1 and the threats against c5 and e4 promise White a free extra pawn.

8...Nxf3+ 9.exf3! d5 10.Re1 Be6 11.c4 (11.Nc3 Bg7 12.Ne2 0-0 13.Nd4 Rae8 14.Bh3 Qd6 15.Nxe6 fxe6 16.Be5 with a nice edge for White) 11...dxc4 (11...Rd8 12.cxd5 Rxd5 13.Qc1 Bg7 14.Nc3 Rd8 15.Ne4 0-0 16.Ba3) 12.Nd2! Rd8 (12...Bg7 13.Nxc4) 13.Qc2 Bg7 (13...cxb3 14.Nxb3 when threats like Nd4 and Bh3 will hurt Black) 14.Nxc4 0-0 15.Bh3, +=.

In the game, White came up with a very interesting idea:

8.Qd4 d6 9.Rd1

I like this since he’s stopping black’s key move, 9...Bg7. This means that White is trying to dominate the play and force Black to abide by his dictates. Also possible was 9.Nxe5 dxe5 (9...Qxe5 10.Qxe5+ dxe6 11.Nd2 when Nc4 will be very annoying) 10.Qa4 and the threat of Ba3 gives White a small plus. However, any time someone plays a move like 9.Rd1 there’s cause for celebration since his heart is very much in the right place.


I said this wasn’t possible, but Black doesn’t agree! Good or bad, I have to say, “BRAVO!” Instead of bowing to White, Black is trying to push his own agenda and make White bow to him!


Avoiding 10.Qxd6? Qxd6 11.Rxd6 Ne4.

After 10.Nxe5 Black has two possible replies (10…Qxe5 or 10…dxe5).

WHAT? I said two possible replies (10...Qxe5, 10...dxe5, though perhaps 10...0-0 should also be a thought), but Black found something completely unexpected! WHAT A MAN this guy is!

And this takes us to a key moment. White was trying to dominate the board and the mutual psychological ups and downs, but Black laughs in white’s face and says, “No, I won’t do what you want me to do. I’ll do what I want to do. Now dance for me, little monkey. Dance for me!”

In the actual game, White cracked a bit (he just couldn’t deal with the heat coming down the a1-h8 diagonal) and played 11.c3, which is a perfectly good move since after 11…Bxe5 12.Qd2 Black finally caved with 12…Nb6? 13.Ba3 c5 14.f4 Bg7 15.Qxd6 and White won. However, instead of 12…Nb6 Black should have played 12…Nc5 when 13.f4 isn’t a good choice (13.e4 gives White an edge): 13…Bf6 14.Qxd6 Qxe2! 15.Ba3 Bh3!! 16.Qd2 Qxg2+ 17.Qxg2 Bxg2 18.Kxg2 Ne6 and White doesn’t have anything.
So white’s 11.c3 was a sober, perhaps wise move that avoided most of the position’s tricks and put the ball back in black’s court. But couldn’t 10...Nd7 be refuted? Here we face another kind of state of mind that everyone needs to create: the desire to PUNISH the opponent if the opportunity arises. In such situations you need to desperately want to punish the “enemy.” Your pulse needs to speed up. Your eyes should cry tears of blood (if that doesn’t freak out your opponent, nothing will). You might start to hyperventilate. Every bit of DNA in your body should sing “Punish!” in a sort of brutal but lovely aria. And the only way to punish black’s extremely courageous but incorrect move was:
11.Nxc6! Bxd4 (11...Qf6 12.Bb2) 12.Nxe7 Bxa1 and here White is faced with two tasty choices:
Of course, these lines require some serious skills at calculation, especially compared to white’s choice of 11.c3. But if you have time on the clock you MUST try to make those calculations and let your sense of outrage run free (it’s great psychological chess training). And if you find that it’s just too much for your present level, then by all means go with 11.c3. But DO make the effort.

Here’s one more game that’s silly and fun, but makes a strong point. Just because you are threatening something doesn’t mean your opponent has to defend it. And vice versa, just because your opponent is threatening you doesn’t mean you have to give it any respect at all.

In the following position (an ICC game played by one of my students) White had just played 13.Rd1, thinking that he might as well gain a free tempo against black’s Queen before chopping on c4. My student was quite excited by this game since I had been raving at him for ages to ignore enemy threats, and this showed that he was actually listening to me (sometimes).

Why move the Queen when you can make threats of your own? White (rated around 2300) was so shocked that he went on tilt.


“Okay”, says White, “now he has to move his Queen!”

14…Bxc4! DOH! Now white’s completely lost.


White thinks, “Okay, now Black will finally move his Queen.”

BTW, after 15.Rxd8 white’s still busted: 15…Bxe2 16.Rxa8 Rxa8 17.axb3 (17.Rxb3 Bd1) 17…Bd3 18.Ra1 Bxe4.

15…bxa2! 16.Ra1 Qb8 and it’s over.

Let’s return to the position after 13…cxb3! and see what happens if White had played 14.Rxd8, which was forced. Then 14...Bxe2 15.Rxa8 Rxa8 16.Rxb3 Rd8 is better for Black but it’s not the end of the world for White. Makes sense: White takes black’s Queen and Black takes white’s Queen. Isn’t that how chess is played? But no, not in this case! After 14.Rxd8 Black should play 14…bxa2!! when 15.Ra1! (NOT 15.Rxf8+ Kxf8 16.Qxa6?? [16.Ra1 has to be played] 16...axb1=Q and Black wins) 15…Bxe2 16.Rxa8 Rxa8 17.Rxa2 leaves Black with an extra pawn.

This example teaches us one huge point: THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS “I MUST” or “HE MUST.”

Now that we’ve discussed the mentality of pushing one’s own agenda, it’s time to see how the big boys do it:

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